Facebook, Suffering, and Letting Go
Facebook offers a rich well of examples regarding the ways we perceive ourselves in relation to each other. Status updates, photos posted and tagged, and conversations we engage in all clearly display an unabashed sense of how we wish to be seen by others—both through our own presentation of a contextualized self and through our ways of interaction. It is, in so many ways, a vast ongoing street drama where we openly choose, through various methods, how we wish to be seen, appreciated and validated.
Facebook is described as a ‘tool for social networking’ and thus has as its central philosophical assumption a kind of monad-based view of the world; that is, Facebook believes that we are autonomous selves who must seek out connection with others. In its apps and functionalities it encourages us to create social personas that are characterized by our likes and dislikes, comments, statuses, postings and photos, and routinely relate to other people as mere objects that we desire, push away, or don’t care about. As such, it is not an extension of our personality, but a manifestation of our desire to be concrete, tangible and externally legitimated.
In Buddhist terms, Facebook is most clearly seen as representing a nefarious temptation to continually assert our false sense of self and the continued objectiﬁcation of those around us.
This raises a critical question: is Facebook dangerous to the pursuit of an authentic existence? As with everything, there is nothing wrong with Facebook in and of itself, but there is always a danger in how we relate to things—how these things play into the multiple ways that suffering can be created, supported, and perpetuated. Like sex or sugar, it has everything to do with the way you deal with it. (Although it is important to note that some things, like riding your bike, are probably more benign than things like taking drugs, simply because of the way that they are bound to tap into that part of you that will, ultimately, crave and suffer.)
One thing is for sure: I’m not preaching from the mount. In fact, it is exactly because I know for sure that I’ve treated Facebook this way that I’m able to come to any of these conclusions at all. I have intentionally posted statuses with a certain ﬂair knowing full well what kind of response they would draw. The truth of the matter is, regardless of how great they may make others feel, my primary motivation is to make myself feel good. Or as Stephen Batchelor writes in Alone With Others, “We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by our outward show of ‘civilized’ manners and ‘cultured’ social behavior into believing that self-concern, desirous attachment, aversion, and indifference are steadily losing their hold over us.” Things—or statuses—that seem perfectly altruistic are often nothing more than the worst kind of cover up.
One of the many truly excellent things about Buddhism is the lack of ﬁnger wagging; that is, taking this case as a great example, there is no need for me to say that what I’ve done is wicked or shameful. In fact, coming to realize this unskillful action is a major step in overcoming it: the First Noble Truth that Buddha teaches encourages us to understand; the Second, to let go. So in coming to see this action for what it is—creating an identity for the sake of answering a longing for permanence in an inauthentic way—I now have the choice to stop doing it. To let it go.
The ‘problem’ is that I like people. I like people and I like knowing what they are up to and I like saying funny things and even making others feel good. But as I said before, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Understanding that Facebook can be used to support and validate the erroneous view of a concrete self is the ﬁrst step in letting that go and instead using your Facebook persona to promote understanding, compassion, and happiness. From this perspective, Facebook can be seen as a tool for actualizing being-in-the-world as being-with-others.
Today’s new status: Gold medal game for my son Sam as I watched from the stands. He slid a perfect assist across the ice and into the net off his teammate’s stick. The coffee was strong and sweet, the molasses cookies moist in the cold of the rink.
Is that perfect? No. But at least I’m still trying.
-Originally published at tricycle.org